Since July, rumors that Apple is planning to open a second campus in Raleigh have spurred much discussion. Raleigh is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States with a growth rate of about 3.4 percent per year and it’s one of 53 U.S. metros with a population greater than 1 million. The arrival of a company like Apple would only extend that growth.
It would be hard to dispute that an Apple campus in the Triangle could attract new talent to the area and help retain existing talent, but it’s equally as hard to predict the impact of potentially tens of thousands of new tech jobs in the region. In my view, and as the old adage goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. The more major tech companies we have here, the better for the region and for its people. While there would certainly be some downsides, there is no doubt that the overall impact would be a net positive.
I believe that one of the challenges the Triangle has in terms of competing with the bigger tech hubs like Boston and the Bay Area is the degree to which there’s a critical mass of innovation, capital and talent. Apple coming to Raleigh would undoubtedly have a net positive impact on those ingredients to a thriving innovation culture.
But all change comes with costs as well as benefits, and Apple and the Triangle in general will need to find a balance between the two. One way of getting ahead of challenges is by auditing the impact of such changes in similar markets and learning from those local governments and municipalities and the local small business community. One need only to read a few headlines about the outrageous cost of living and class divide in San Francisco right now, and how people (and politicians) are quick to point the finger at tech companies. Seattle, too. While Raleigh is perhaps a good way off from having to face those issues so directly, we can see the warning lights.
Then there are the less obvious possible consequences to consider. Land must be cleared and developed. Parking lots — a huge waste of space — will need to be planned. Water must be supplied, and same goes for power, air conditioning, and other resources. Some small businesses will benefit; others might fail. Some neighborhoods could be disrupted, others may benefit. Highways will see more traffic and wildlife might be displaced; it’s all part and parcel. While Apple continues to take a lead on sustainability and renewable energy, there will still be local impacts.
I believe that for the startup community, having Apple in our back yard is a very good thing. It’s like trying to build a minor league baseball team in a new market; having a major league team nearby helps creates a thriving baseball community with spillover benefits for smaller players. Apple coming to Raleigh would have a similar effect, benefiting more than it doesn’t, but especially for the startup community (the single-, double-, or triple-A analog).
Talent Drain, or Gain?
Will Apple drain some of the talent out of those startups or other local businesses? Undoubtedly, but again, a rising tide lifts all boats, even if some people may jump to another boat. Talent drain is not a permanent state of being; it’s a temporary problem that can be overcome. Each company will have to handle it differently. Dropsource has a very distributed team, for example, and we could overcome the issue perhaps more easily than others who critically need local personnel.
In terms of attracting talent, Apple will attract more people to the area (more transplants even, to the chagrin of some) and thus increase the overall pool of talent. But while Apple is certainly an attractive employer, not everyone thrives working in gigantic companies; in fact it’s where many discover a passion for doing something entrepreneurial. So I will contend that while there may be a short-term brain-drain as Apple scoops up talent, it will be short-term, and the allure of “working for Apple” will wear off quickly for many, who may end up launching or working at the next wave of successful Triangle startups.
Still, this is Apple we’re talking about – the first American company to reach a trillion-dollar milestone. So we’d find ways to accommodate them. And the best thing that the local communities can do to combat the potential consequences is to pro-actively manage the changes that will inevitably occur. This includes city planning, especially as it pertains to mass transit like local and regional rail. Local communities thrive with light rail, and if Raleigh-Durham is going to avoid the same unattractive and inefficient suburban sprawl that we see in, say, Atlanta, than it’s up to the people, the businesses large and small, and all communities to make light rail a priority for the area.
Public Transit is Key
As someone who relocated to the area from Boston just a few years ago, I can say that the biggest amenity I miss is public transportation. My commute is an hour, by car, door-to-door, and commuting by car is so wasteful – so many cars, big cars, with just one person in them, all sitting in traffic and all generally heading to the same places. A light rail system would not only serve to greatly alleviate the increasing congestion on the roads in the area, but also create more accessible, affordable, diverse and vibrant neighborhood-oriented communities here in the Triangle. It can’t be overstated how important that is, in the face of such population growth and increasing suburban sprawl. Local communities, vibrant neighborhoods, diversity and accessibility are at the very essence of what makes a city and region great – not how wide the highways are.
The bottom line is that if the area is going to make its potential relationship with Apple work, we must learn from lessons of the past, and look to other states and cities for how to avoid costly mistakes and make the most of this opportunity and others like it.
Ben Saren is the CEO of Dropsource.